Phoolan is a documentary film about the extraordinary life of an illiterate village girl, gang-rape survivor, bandit and finally parliamentarian. This is the story of one woman’s fight against incredible odds for justice and dignity. Known as India’s Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi is considered by many to be one of the most extraordinary and controversial women of our time.
By exploring Phoolan Devi’s story, we explore the resilience of human spirit in the face of extreme oppression while creating greater awareness about the problems of poverty, injustice, and sexual violence towards women in India and beyond.
In order to immerse the viewer in this stranger-than-fiction story, the film weaves together interviews with those who knew her best, dramatic reenactments, and never-seen-before archival footage. It also includes insight from a select group of Indian experts who provide context and give first-hand accounts of the story as it unfolds. Through these voices, the audience sees the wider relevance of Phoolan’s life to the problems faced by women and the poor today.
The making of this film has been a labour of love for the past 3 years. The good news is that we are 80% shot. Our multi-award winning team lead by Hossein Fazeli and Jack Silberman, who collectively have received 100 awards for their films, is working around the clock to complete the film.
Phoolan Devi was born in 1963 to a poor, low-caste family in an Indian village so small it doesn’t appear on any map. As a child she experienced the theft of her family’s small plot of land, and physical and sexual violence when she tried to do something about it.
When those whom she fought against in her village became desperate to force Phoolan into silence, they had her kidnapped by a group of bandits. She was only 15. The plan was to have her killed by the gang. But in strange turn of events, the second-in-command of the gang, Vikram Mallah, fell in love with Phoolan and saved her from the leader of the gang who wanted to rape and then kill her. And so Phoolan joined Vikram’s gang.
When Vikram was killed a year later by upper-caste rival gang members, Phoolan was brutally gang-raped by the kidnappers as well as inhabitants of an upper caste village called Behmai where she was kept as a hostage.
Miraculously she managed to escape, vowing revenge. A few months later she formed her own gang and manifested her revenge by returning to Behmai and shooting 21 villagers. The massacre was sensational and shocking news because it was the first time in history that high-caste men were murdered by a gang led by a low-caste woman.
And so, Phoolan’s story as the Bandit Queen began. For 4 years she roamed the countryside like a female Robin Hood, ransacking high-caste villages and giving money to the poor, avenging abuses against low-caste women, and dispensing rough justice against rich landowners. Phoolan became the most wanted outlaw in India, with a price on her head to match. Desperate to catch her, the authorities took their frustration out on her parents – destroying their meager home, torturing, and imprisoning them. To protect her family from police abuse, the Bandit Queen agreed to surrender.
Phoolan’s greatest transformation happened in jail where she renounced violence and became a Buddhist.
After spending 11 years in prison, she was released in 1994. Having lived with an outraged sense of justice for years and wanting to make sure that what happened to her would never happen to another woman, Phoolan entered politics and joined a newly formed party that ran on a ticket of helping the poor. She ran for parliament, and despite the fact that she couldn’t read or write, was elected in a landslide. Once in parliament, she fought for the lower castes, particularly lower caste women. But she didn’t realize the world of Indian politics could be even more dangerous than the world of outlaws and police. On July 26, 2001, the Bandit Queen was assassinated outside her New Delhi home. Although a high-caste young man was caught and admitted to shooting Phoolan as revenge for the Behmai massacre, many suspect her murder was engineered by powerful rival politicians.